Archive for Self-Reliance

Some thoughts from a pianist about practice, art and an authentic life.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 1, 2013 by Joe Callahan

I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks.  Life has just been a little hectic.  But I read this essay today and thought it was worth posting here.

James Rhodes is a concert pianist who wrote the piece below for The Guardian.  It is an interesting reflection on doing what you are most called to do regardless of societal pressures that would dictate otherwise.  It is also a compelling argument for an ongoing commitment to one’s practice.  He is speaking about art but the ideas could be equally applied to business, martial arts or playing Go.  Considering the theme of this blog it seemed apt.

In the next few days I’ll get back in gear and report on the progress of One Hundred Days Of Practice.

Creative Resistance And Dragon Slaying

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on September 12, 2012 by Joe Callahan

I’m not a big fan of books that are self-help or inspirational or that promote wishful thinking about reality.  Most of the “wonder that is you” genre is at best a derivative easy-listening version of more disciplined and profound traditions.  At worst its delusional nonsense.

So I was surprised to see a book that seemed strangely self-helpish from author Steven Pressfield.  Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, a piece of historical fiction that recounts the oft told tale of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae.  If you aren’t familiar with the book it is an anthem to a certain ideal (Spartan) of virtue.  The book makes the most hardened and badass of grown men pretend they have something in their eye while they get all choked up.  I did.  By all accounts he’s an interesting man who, after a period in the Marine Corps  “worked as an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital, fruit-picker in Washington state, and screenwriter.  His struggles to make a living as an author, including the period when he was homeless and living out of the back of his car, are detailed in his book The War of Art ”  (So sayeth Wikipedia).  As a fellow former worker of random crappy jobs I have to feel a certain kinship.

So I was curious to see what Mr. Pressfield was doing writing a book about finding inspiration and overcoming internal resistant.  “Do The Work” only cost a few bucks for Kindle so why not?  I liked it even when I didn’t see eye to eye on everything.  But the most significant passage to me was this:

When you and I set out to create anything—art, commerce, science, love—or to advance in the direction of a higher, nobler version of ourselves, we uncork from the universe, ineluctably, an equal and opposite reaction. That reaction is Resistance. Resistance is an active, intelligent, protean, malign force—tireless, relentless, and inextinguishable—whose sole object is to stop us from becoming our best selves and from achieving our higher goals. The universe is not indifferent. It is actively hostile.  Every principle espoused so far in this volume is predicated upon that truth.

The aim of every axiom set forth thus far is to outwit, outflank, outmaneuver Resistance. We can never eliminate Resistance. It will never go away. But we can outsmart it, and we can enlist allies that are as powerful as it is. One thing we can never, never permit ourselves to do is to take Resistance lightly, to underestimate it or to fail to take it into account. We must respect Resistance, like Sigourney Weaver respected the Alien, or St. George respected the dragon.

Pressfield, Steven (2011-04-20). Do the Work (p. 33-34). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

It may seem from the above passage that Pressfield is telling us the universe is nasty, brutish and has it in for you.  If you read the rest of his short book, more a long essay really, it is clear that isn’t what he’s saying.  But he IS making the point that when you are your own worst enemy, which most of us are at some point, the internal demons will combine with a fluid and uncertain environment to completely mess you up.  Figuring out how to deal with that is a personal responsibility and requires focused effort.

Where I think he does go wrong is his statement that the universe is not indifferent but is hostile.  He refers to each of us and our “dragon”.   It is true that each of us carries our internal adversary (and allies).   But neither we nor our internal adversary are the universe.  We are in it.  Nature doesn’t really care who prevails.  It accepts all outcomes and continues on.  Things come, things go in natural progression.  The outcome only matters to us.  To the extent that we can be in harmony with that universal nature (Tao, Logos) and ride its currents we’ll likely find it easier to keep resistance, disharmony, self-sabotage at bay.  I think the universe is indifferent but that indifference is not a negative.  It is not neglect.  It’s allowing things to go their own way.

The Stoics taught that we live in a universe that works.  It’s the best possible universe simply because, well, it exists.  Why would nature order itself to its own detriment?  Since we are part of the grand schema it makes no sense that anything truly evil can happen to us.  Painful?  Disappointing? Infuriating?  Even fatal?  Sure.  These things re inevitable.  But truly bad?  Not if we retain our awareness, our reason, our character, our purpose.  Which I think brings us full circle to Pressfield’s point.  There is really nothing to lose if you just give yourself over to doing your work, get messy, persevere (the Chinese got this right with the original meaning of Gung Fu).

To carry Pressfield’s Alien analogy further, the creature isn’t going away.  So you may as well just get mean and blow it out of the airlock.  Not bad advice for a self-help book.

Hurricanes, Fate and Stoicism

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Self-Reliance, Stoicism with tags , , , on August 31, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Isaac Friedlander. Man in Storm

I went for a short hike yesterday and stepped around and under and over the fallen limbs and trees that came down during Irene. We lost power for a time but all things considered we fared very well compared to so many. Last week, the threat of a hurricane was a good reason to review the bug-out and bug-in gear and supplies I keep as part of self-reliance. In a way, it was a kind of meditative exercise. In doing this it struck me that hurricane prep is a good analogy for the view of fate espoused by Stoicism.

The Stoics used the term fate in describing the Logos, the universal source of things (along with god, Zeus, nature, reason, fire and other terms). The Logos as the primordial force pervading all life contains a certain pattern, a preexisting order that manifests itself. Because of this the Greek and Roman Stoics have been accused of believing in predestination. The are often described as assuming little or no possible control over the events of life and so the correct response was to face it all with a stiff upper lip. That was not their view.

This is where the hurricane analogy comes in.

If a hurricane is coming your way then it is coming your way. There is nothing you are going to do to change that fact. So you are indeed fated to have a hurricane come to town. Perhaps a less loaded term is inevitability rather than fate. This is what the Stoics were really getting at. There are many things in life (death and taxes?) that are inevitable. Any number of factors and causes will visibly or invisibly lead to an event. It is possible to see inevitable things coming and so, in a sense, resign oneself to fate. Such a prediction is possible when we have clarity of perception. In the case of a hurricane that clarity hopefully comes from weather radar. For most of the inevitable events in our lives clear perception is the result of a conscious practice. The Stoics worked at this by achieving the state of apatheia.

Literally the word means “without passions”. Unfortunately, apatheia carries the modern meaning of apathy. Far from apathy’s negative state of being sluggish or uncaring or hopeless, apatheia is an active positive discipline where uncontrolled emotions are put aside to prevent clouded judgement and perception. The ability to look at things without anger or lust or fear lets us see things as they are. Laurence Gonzalez, in his excellent book Deep Survival, explores how people lost in the wild have natural and powerful but counterproductive emotional responses. They panic. People decide the parking lot must be just over the next ridge. They decide they can get home before the hurricane gets too bad. Effective survivors are able to keep those emotions compartmentalized away from a calm, rational assessment of their situation.

The Stoics talk about this need for a clear head but it was part of the Greek tradition all the way back to Homer. That storm tossed fellow Odysseus manages to survive all his hardships because he stops, observes, assesses and then takes action. Odysseus sets aside anger and impatience long enough to assess and plan. He reclaims his home from the suitors. Agamemnon comes home to an ambush and in his arrogance never sees it coming. Apatheia can help keep you from getting stabbed in the bathtub.

Seeing things clearly as they are helps us to make effective decisions. The ability to do this is where Stoic fatalism ends and the awareness of free will begins. If a hurricane is coming then that is fate. What you then do in response to that inevitable event is a matter of your perception and will. You can prepare to weather the storm. You can live in denial and pretend it isn’t coming. You can panic and turn into a pile of useless human goo. You can evacuate if you think there is time and it is worth doing.

Whatever someone chooses it is in the actions taken that we see agathos manifest in the individual or not. To be sure, even when perception is clear and worthy choices are made there is no guarantee that things will turn out at all well. Sometimes you do everything right and you’re still screwed. The Stoics showed us that it doesn’t really matter. Some things are beyond our control. It is what we do with those matters within our control that defines us.

As for me? I make sure I have fresh batteries for the flashlights and leave the rest to the Logos.

What Is Your House?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric, oikos, Self-Reliance with tags , , on June 27, 2011 by Joe Callahan

When you think about a household what meaning does it have for you? Does the word evoke an image of a specific physical place? Is it a more emotional sense of people, those who make you feel “at home”?

In the Homeric epics the central social unit was the Oikos. Oikos translates roughly as house or household. In more recent times it has also become the brand name of a Greek style yogurt (tastes like homemade I guess?). The social unit most often identified with ancient Greece is the Polis, the city-states like Athens and Sparta. The Homeric Oikos came before that city-state concept, an earlier organization for a less structured society.

In the days of Homer’s poetry there was a sense of being Greek. A common language marked who was part of the Greek world and who was “barbarian”. That was about as far as it went. The Greeks were not a nation as we understand it today. The Oikos was the primary relationship and demanded the first loyalty of the Homeric people we encounter in the poems.

An Oikos consisted of a noble family along with its dependents. The bond between the members of the household is described as being one of love (philia not eros, though one assumes there was plenty of that as well). It was a largely self sufficient unit for agricultural production as well as the tools of daily living. The safety and freedom of the Oikos was maintained by the Agathos and his martial skills. That isn’t to say that the Oikos existed in isolation. It was bound by relationships with other households. Another Agathos might become Xeinos (a foreign guest-friend) through sacred oaths and exchanging of gifts. Houses were bound in a sort of alliance. Their relationship was a matter of Time (honor).

For me, the idea of the Oikos resonates with the need for self-sufficiency that I’ve discussed previously. It is not an original thought on my part to note that we live in an increasingly globalized world. Our lives are determined by institutions of growing size and depersonalization. The individual human can easily become simply a unit of consumption and production.

I don’t wish to overstate the negative effects of “bigness”. I don’t plan on retreating to an isolated wilderness compound in rejection of some New World Order. If I do it will be called a summer home. Globalization has its merits. Personally, I think things like international trade and instant global communications are pretty handy. Still, I firmly believe that balance is needed and is something one has to actively work to maintain. Just because you have a nice house where you live with your family does not mean you have an Oikos. It doesn’t automatically mean you are charting an active course of personal, autonomous Arete as the Agathos at the head of an Oikos.

I suppose at this point I should produce one of those lists like “8 steps to having an Oikos”. I doubt that would work. I think each of us will discover that circumstances dictate the shape of our household. For myself, there are some basic questions I have considered.

First, who really is in your household? The simplest answer is one’s family. But family has become an increasingly fluid term and how far it extends will vary. I live in the burbs of Boston with one woman, two cats and have elderly parents living nearby. That is pretty much my household. I have close friends that are Xeinoi, allies and welcome guests with whom I share bonds of affection and reciprocal honor. You may have friends who live with you and are closer than any blood relations ever were. Your Oikos won’t look like mine.

Can you defend the Oikos? Relax, this isn’t where I tell you to build a bunker. But there is a responsibility to the people who are in your house. You are the Agathos. What does it mean to be able to care for them? The place of the martial and of self-defense as part of Agathos is a whole other post. I plan on writing on that at length. For now, I’ll just invite you to consider whether or not you are truly autonomous if your well-being is entirely dependent on others. Again, it will vary depending on your circumstances.

How can your household be more self-sufficient? Maybe that means growing some of your own food. It may mean choosing voluntary simplicity. Maybe it means building your own business and income stream. Its easier for me to push for economic autonomy because I don’t have kids looking at me for dinner. Not to keep repeating myself, but its going to be individual.

Whatever we choose it matters most that the choices be intentional. The Stoics counsel us to a life that is reasoned, dignified and in harmony with nature. We can choose that for our Oikos. The form is up to each of us as free and rational individuals.

The Japan Quake, The Bug Out Bag, And Reality

Posted in Agathos, Self-Reliance, Stoicism with tags , , on March 15, 2011 by Joe Callahan

In the few days since the Japan quake and tsunami I’ve been interested to notice an increased number of hits on this blog. According to the handy WordPress tools, it was largely due to search terms that led them to my recent post about my bug-out bag. As a quick recap, a bug-out bag is a pack containing what you would need to survive for about 72 hours while you walk out of a very bad situation. I wrote about the BOB as it related to the role of self-reliance in being Agathos. Like most people I’ve been alternately fascinated and saddened by the news and images coming out of Japan. I suppose it is not surprising that people might suddenly start thinking more about how to deal with emergency and disaster. If you haven’t really given it thought it is unsettling to suddenly see that the planet may do something not in your best interests and in truly spectacular fashion. Packing a BOB may seem like a bigger priority this week.

The unhappy truth is that a bug-out bag probably wouldn’t have done squat to save most of those quake victims on the first day. As I considered the searches, and also a surge in discussion board posts on the BOB concept, I had to wonder how many might be looking at this backwards.

The Stoics teach us a couple of things that may be applicable here. The first is to practice the mental discipline of seeing things as they really are. We have to break down our impressions of an event and see them only for basic facts and not our emotional responses. Second, we have to learn to accept that there are many many things in the world that our outside of our control. Where we can show our greatest virtue as human beings is not in altering events beyond our control but in how we respond to those events.

If you look outside your window and you see a gigantic wall of water flinging boats and cars and flaming debris at you with massive force and traveling at hundreds of miles an hour you cannot change your circumstances. Most of those people were screwed. You have no control. You can only choose how you respond. I saw one piece of helicopter footage where the tsunami was barreling across farm fields towards a road. One poor individual was on that road in a car. Whoever it was drove like hell to get away. I have no idea if they made it since the news clip ended (I hope so but it didn’t look promising) but they chose how to respond. It wasn’t preparation it was response.

The late John Boyd created the OODA loop concept (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) and it is an excellent guide for 1) Seeing things as they are 2) Recognizing that the environment is fluid and potentially hostile 3) Choosing a response. It certainly applies in this case. Observe (Gigantic tidal wave from a nightmare), Orient (If I stay on this road I am dead), Decide (Either die or drive and probably still die), Decision (DRIVE). No prep kit can help you through that process.

So does that mean I suddenly think its worthless to have something like a BOB? Not at all. I just don’t think its good to have any illusions about the power of preparation.

In the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, Japan is still a disaster unfolding. Food, fuel and water shortages, housing problems, potential disease issues and radioactive contamination are going to be challenges for the people who still live. Those are the folks who might be glad to have a bug-out bag. If you are a survivor in one of those remote northern coastal towns you might be very happy to have the means to walk out of there on your own. Perhaps more to the point, if they still have a home intact they may be very very glad if they prepared to bug in. Despite having written about a bug out bag I also have food, water, med supplies, etc stored at home. Its pretty hard to maintain self-reliance when you are a refugee standing in line for everything needed to live.

As I stated in my previous post, I don’t do these things because I expect to survive Armageddon and the zombie apocalypse. I embrace these concepts primarily because self-reliance provides dignity to our lives. However, Japan is just another lesson that teaches us we don’t get to pick our disasters. We only get to pick how we respond.

My Bug-Out Bag And Why I Have One

Posted in Agathos, Self-Reliance with tags , on January 21, 2011 by Joe Callahan

After a recent post on the idea of Askesis I did a review of the contents in my bug-out bag. The plan is to do a little winter practice bug-out with said bag. This led to a discussion with a friend about just why I decided to put together a kit like this. Before explaining why I have a BOB, I’ll explain what it is.

A bug-out bag is simply a pack that has been pre-stocked with what you need to survive for 72 hours while trying to walk out of a disaster area. There are many variations on the bug-out theme and a huge amount of information available on the topic. The bag concept assumes you either don’t have a vehicle or you are forced to abandon it. If you have a vehicle then the range of items you can carry with you goes up significantly. The core idea though is to have what you need, ready to carry on your back. There are also time line variations.  People prepare kits for shorter term like the 24 hour get-home bag and longer term, larger kits if you don’t think you will be coming back or have a very long trek to some safe destination.

Rather than ramble on at length about the items that might go in a BOB I’ll direct you here. There are many sources for info but I think this gentleman has created some of the most thorough and articulate presentations I have found (he even taste tests survival rations!). Needless to say, BOB supplies need to help you stay warm and dry, get fluids, eat and not get lost…. pretty much in that order.  The bag, along with some other gear and supplies, is now a permanent fixture in my car trunk.

I didn’t organize a BOB because I am expecting to face the Zombie Apocalypse or survive the end of the world ala The Road. Sure, I’d try to rise to the occasion if such events occurred but given that I live in a suburb of Boston I’d probably be toast. My game plan for nuclear war is to pour a scotch and wait for the pretty colors. So why bother with preparedness?

No, I’m not preparing for this….I hope.

Originally I was motivated by self-sufficiency. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I believe finding ways to maintain and increase self-reliance are central to the achievement of άγαθός (agathos) as a personal philosophy. I’m not sure what can foster more self-reliance than the ability to survive and thrive under adverse conditions when societal structures are not in place to make it easy.

As I delved deeper into the topic and began assembling things I needed for the BOB (as well as Bug-IN supplies for home) it all just made sense. While Armageddon may not be at hand there are other considerations. Being stranded in a blizzard, evacuating from other natural disasters, civil unrest, deciding to get out of Dodge if some pandemic is beginning are just some of life’s cheery possibilities. Yes, the likelihood of such things happening is relatively slim but I’m sure the folks in New Orleans and, more recently, Brisbane weren’t thinking disaster was on the menu either. If something were to go awry and you had to get moving in a hurry, do you like the idea of being a refugee with just the clothes on your back and dependent on FEMA for your future? Doesn’t appeal much to me either.

Considering that it just isn’t that expensive and doesn’t require Herculean effort to put together a bag for each family member, I can’t really see a downside. Besides, next time you go camping you’re already packed.

Some of the stuff that goes in the BOB kit

Askesis – We Live As We Train

Posted in arete, stoic, Stoicism, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 8, 2011 by Joe Callahan

If you search the internet for the Greek word Askesis you’ll find many references to religious asceticism.  Given the role of Greek language in early Christianity this isn’t surprising.  Defining Askesis as just a rigorous form of self-denial for spiritual purposes is limiting and doesn’t totally match how earlier Greeks would have understood it. If we take a look at the Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary we find Askesis defined as “practice, training, trade, profession”. More than just denying the self, it refers to training oneself. The Asketes (one who engages in Askesis) is defined as “athlete, hermit, monk”. That is an interesting combination.

Asceticism evokes images of renunciants chanting under freezing waterfalls or wandering the desert in loincloths. While those disciplines have have a real purpose, for the Agathos (the good and worthy individual) the goal is training to live in the world not apart from it.   For the Greek and Roman Stoics Askesis was an exercise that showed “this life event isn’t as bad as I feared it might be”. Stoics would consciously choose to undergo forms of deprivation or meditate on losses, not as a form of masochism or atonement but to discover what was best in themselves.  Their reason and dignity and character was not dependent on externals. If you slept on the bare ground and went hungry for a day or two your internal virtues remained. The exercise taught that what we fear and think we cannot live without is often a phantasm, an impression that really holds no power. That isn’t to say Askesis is a pleasant experience. It may be pretty miserable at the time. But it will not truly harm you. To use the Stoic term, the pain or discomfort is a rejected (non-preferable) indifferent.

In the martial arts world one often hears the old saying “You fight the way you train”. Under stress you will only rise to the absolute bare bones level of skill and conditioning you have reached in your training. The more realistic the training, the more it teaches you to perform under stress and fatigue and pain.  So, the better you will fight when the proverbial feces hits the fan. I believe this principle can be expanded to include everything in life. It is really what Askesis is about. If you have never experienced adversity you have no frame of reference to refer to in future adversity. If you have not tried living your philosophy, walking the walk, how much use will it be to you when confronted with genuine struggle, loss, change? This is what Askesis teaches us. It wakes us up. It shows us what is inside of us (or not) when the veneer of our comfortable daily lives and identities is somehow stripped away. If Aristotle was correct and Arete (excellence) is a product of habits then Askesis is a tool for getting us there.

Again, Askesis doesn’t mean you have to live in a cave and eat only nuts and berries for years. It is the gradual exposure of mind, body and/or spirit to progressive challenges and hardships. This is both to train and also to build the confidence and belief that, yes, I am a person who can deal with these events in my life.

This all was on my mind today as I went for a short hike. There was a light snowfall and daylight was fading. It occurred to me,  what if I had no home I could return to or I was stranded in some fashion? This all assumed I was someplace far more remote and the cellphone wasn’t an option. What if I had to stay there in the forest for the night? Given that I have a bug out bag and other gear in the trunk of my car I knew I would not only live but be pretty comfortable. What if the car was gone? It would be an uncomfortable night but it would be simple enough to build a shelter with dead limbs against one of the rock outcrops and out of the prevailing winds. With the knife I had with me I could cut evergreen boughs. Pile some dead leaves on top of me and I’d be fine. I’d be a little hungry but one night of hunger never killed anyone.

This was, of course, only a mental exercise and a fairly mellow one at that.  It was still important to remind myself that I didn’t need a roof and a warm bed and a plate of food to be who I am. None of those things were required to be Agathos.